Category Archives: Technology

This week’s media picks: infrastructure, Bangladesh safety, fracking, climate change, bioscience

FT (23/4/14): Leading article: Time to invest in Britain’s future

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor, George Osborne, welcomed £36 billion investment in infrastructure projects, the Financial Times, remained to be impressed. In a leader, it said that one of the biggest and most persistent questions facing the UK economy is the worryingly low level of investment in infrastructure. Despite fine words, the government’s record is decidedly mixed, and the new set of initiatives may not match the scale needed to raise infrastructure spending to the level required. The FT outlines three areas of weakness in policy: 1) Spending is not high enough, and is persistently less than many of our competitors; 2) Given low interest rates, the government should borrow more to finance big projects; and 3) the government needs to establish a more stable and clearer framework for private sector investment.

Fibre2Fashion (24/4/14) Bangladesh Safety Accord on course, says UNI official

A year after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, a demonstration of corporate social responsibility in action, rather than just words, is making progress towards improving the safety, prospects and lives of the country’s garment workers. Despite the many barriers to progress imposed by the political, social and commercial cultures of Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh can be proud of its progress when it marks its own one year anniversary next month.

An official from, UNI Global, one of the two global union bodies that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord, Alke Boessiger, said: “The inspection program is in full operation. There is a strong team of more than more than 100 technical experts and engineers in Bangladesh who are conducting 45 inspections per week, with the aim to inspect 1500 factories by October.  More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 for structural safety.  Every inspection has revealed critical issues which must be repaired as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in the future. These issues include, for example, the absence of fire doors to separate the work area from the fire exit.  Brands are responsible to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for the renovations and improvements.”

FT (24/4/14): Shale gas a multi-billion-pound opportunity for UK business

A report by EY, commissioned by the UKOOG, the shale-gas trade body, said that fracking shale gas could potentially generate 64,000 jobs in the oil and gas supply chain. It said that over the next 15 years, the UK would need to invest £17 billion on specialised fracking equipment and skills. This won’t mollify fracking’s opponents, but does at least show that the industry is seeking to make a positive, factually-based case for its development.

The Guardian (25/4/14): Kingfisher CEO warns on underestimating impact of climate change on business

In an opinion piece, Kingfisher plc CEO, Ian Cheshire urged business to sign a communiqué aimed at policymakers gathering in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference. He warned that resource scarcity, energy price increases and extreme weather are real and growing threats to the long-term viability of business. That’s why hesigned the Trillion Tonne Communique, drawn up by the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, and is encouraging other business leaders to do so too. Adverse climate events are increasing costs for business, Kingfisher’s alone, were tens of millions of pounds, and as business doesn’t have a seat at the table, it needs more of them to sign the Trillion Tonne Communique to ensure that its voice is heard. 103 businesses world wide have signed so far, but it will require quite a few more to overcome the political resistance that clearly exists in some quarters.

FT (25/4/14): UK medical science drive shaken by US takeover fears

News that AstraZeneca was approached by Pfizer about a £60 billion takeover, has called into question the UK’s ambition to remain a leading global player in life sciences. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only large companies with research and development operations in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor John Bell said: “If we were to lose one of them it would be a real blow to our capabilities. It’s a sector that is crucial to our future economic success. The news prompted Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the House of Commons science committee to call for tougher standards to protect strategic UK assets, such as considering the national interest when looking at takeovers. Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, pointed to successful smaller biotech companies, but said: “It is important to have whales in the ecosystems around which minnows can flourish.”

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This week’s media picks worth a read

We found these articles worth reading, you might too depending on your interests.

FT: Criticism of energy groups overshadows good news in [wind] sector

The changing view of the “big six” energy companies is symbolized by a recent Mirror front page headline that showed Centrica CEO, Sam Laidlaw as the “blackout blackmailer”. Commons energy select committee chairman, Tim Yeo, cannot remember energy being such a high-profile issue in his 30 years as MP. The CMA referral and the Tories proposed block on onshore wind farms have exacerbated fear in the sector. But Siemens’ Yorkshire wind turbine factory and the investment push by Dong, Statoil, Statkraft and Vattenfall show that “the big six are not the only game in town.”

FT:Labour vows to spread wealth away from London

In a little-noticed speech Ed Miliband confirmed Labour’s move away from the old regional development agencies as a means of generating growth in the English regions. Instead, the new local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) would be retained and the focus would be on cities, city-regions and partnerships of councils.

The Guardian:Government contractors begin to realise public trust is an end in itself
Jim Bligh, head of public services at the CBI, writes that the private sector is starting to recognise that building public trust is a worthy end in itself. The risks of not being transparent – of hiding behind bureaucracy or commercial confidentiality – far outweigh the risks of the alternative. Transparency ultimately shines a light on good performance and bad performance alike, which means that it can greatly improve the competitive dynamic. The losers will be companies and public bodies which simply aren’t performing well enough.

The New Yorker: Heartbleed: an example of ungovernability

You may not yet have heard of Heartbleed, the latest cyber-threat, but you are probably already a victim of it. The New Yorker reports on why one respected cryptography expert describes the threat of Heartbleed as 11 on a scale of one to ten. Was it on the Government’s cyber-crime radar? And even if it was, what can one Government do to tackle what is a global threat?

The Independent: Over here for the beer

A bevy of brewers is increasingly flocking to London from overseas. Discover why the English beer regulations make the capital the place to be for German and US brewers thirsty for innovation

The Independent: Erdogan: from model strongman to tinpot dictator

The Turkish premier’s decline into authoritarianism has dangerous geopolitical consequences.

This week’s media selection: London advances on digital, retreats on financial; Budget politics; “clicktivism”

Evening Standard: Tech City boss: Britain can now follow London’s success

The new CEO of London’s Tech City, Gerard Grech, said that Britain can now cement its place as a global player in digital technology and entrepreneurial industries. Tech City has grown from 200 digital companies at launch in 2010, to 1,300 today. Grech will work on the “four Ps”; policy, partnerships, promotion and programmes, and will relay entrepreneurs’ concerns to government.

The Independent: New York replaces London as financial capital of the world

New York has over taken London as the world’s leading financial centre as the City’s reputation has been hurt by banking and market scandals, uncertainty over EU membership and the referendum on Scottish independence.

The Times: Osborne’s Budget gives the Tories new hope

Former Conservative Home editor, Tim Montgomerie, argues that while George Osborne may not have conquered Britain’s economic challenges he offers the best policies.

FT: Tories should not expect an election dividend

In contrast to Tim Montgomerie, University of Essex professor of government, Anthony King, argues that voters are more impressed by the squeeze on their real incomes than by Osborne’s triumphalist rhetoric. What makes matters worse, is the electoral system, which requires the Tories to be at least 11 points ahead in order to win a majority.

FT: Web activists tear down corporate walls

Large corporations are being forced into climbdowns by partly by social media and “clicktivism”. Twitter and Facebook are turbocharging critical messages as never before, making it harder than ever for companies to control the terms of public discourse. Companies are being dragged into a new world of “private politics”, which is led by activists, not government. This is forcing them into positions on issues that are only tangentially related to their businesses.

No “boom and bust” for solar industry?

The previous Labour Government was memorably accused of failing to fix the roof while the sun shone. The solar industry might be thinking the same of the present government, which the Prime Minister asserted would be “the greenest ever”.

Recent government announcements show that support for some renewable energies, such as offshore wind, wave and anaerobic digestion, is being maintained.  In contrast, that for solar photovoltaic is being cut drastically, which was expected, and being cut precipitately, which few expected. The feed-in tariff for small domestic solar PV installations is to be cut by more than half from 12 December.

In announcing this decision, energy minister, Greg Barker, said that “Boom and bust for solar must be avoided”. This is a phrase we have heard before and Barker must be hoping that it doesn’t come to haunt him as it did Gordon Brown.

The growth in solar PV has been dramatic. The generating capacity of solar photovoltaic installations has increased dramatically from 23 MW in 2008 to more than 400 MW from 100,000 individual installations by September this year. Yet it needs to be remembered that despite this dramatic growth solar PV accounted for just half of one percent of the electricity generated by renewable means. That is a tiny proportion of our electricity needs, yet the growth of the solar PV sector has all but exhausted the budget for feed-in tariffs.

The Government claims by cutting the feed-in tariff it will save households £23 on their annual electricity bill by 2020. It also says that industry costs are falling. The cost of an installation in April this year was £13,000, but now it is down to £9,000. Under these circumstances there is no longer a need for such a generous subsidy.

The trouble for the solar PV industry is that, at least up to now, it makes such a small contribution to total electricity generation. This means that were it to collapse, the impact on supply would be negligible. But political considerations are also counting against it. Ministers will be acutely aware of the need to address consumers’ bills, especially for energy. They will have asked themselves why upwards of 20 million households should pay extra on their electricity bills for the benefit of just over 100,000 households who are able to put up around £10,000 to install solar panels on their roofs.

Last week the British Photovoltaic Association held a reception in the House of Commons. Greg Barker was a, perhaps diplomatic, no-show. In his absence, the Department for Energy and Climate Change sent a senior official to deliver a pretty blunt message to the industry that the party is over. He said that the problem is that the rate of installation is unsustainable. In October alone there was a new peak of 4,216 installations with 15 MW capacity.

As he so deftly put it: “This is a problem in a fiscally constrained environment.” And although the Government is consulting, he said that the industry needs to plan on the basis that the “decisions” outlined in the consultation will go ahead.

Some figures in the industry are threatening legal action over the Government’s decision. This will not surprise ministers and they seem determined to press ahead regardless, confident that they will prevail. But the industry needs to do more than just shout “No!” Legal action is not a substitute for coherent, thought-through and practical policy proposals. The solar industry needs to look beyond open-ended generous subsidies and find other policy proposals that can support the solar industry’s growth. That is the best way to avoid bust following boom.

The internet: a Nobel cause..?

The internet has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, the internet – an inanimate object. Last year, the winner essentially won it for being elected President of the US, not a public office naturally linked with peace, although often accused of being occupied by an inanimate object.

Forgetting the possible damage to the prestige of the prize itself, one has to question whether the concept of peace is being properly applied. The nomination was submitted by Wired Italy magazine, which claimed that the internet can “destroy hate and conflict and propagate peace and democracy.” They clearly haven’t visited the BNP site but nevertheless, I agree.

I love the internet. It empowers hundreds of millions of people to communicate instantly on a global scale, dissipating information (some of it even accurate) in seconds. It brought us email, sit-down shopping and has opened up a whole new world of gentlemanly pursuits. It made possible the Altitude blog and elevated Paris Hilton from obscurity to global embarrassment. OK, so it’s not perfect.

But that’s just half the story. It can also be divisive if its benefits are not shared. The European Commission has likened the internet’s impact upon industry with that of the railways. Many consider that an understatement; the proliferation of and access to the internet are far speedier than could be said of the railways, impacting upon people’s lives at a faster rate. Advances in its technologies are also more rapid, with 4th generation Wi-Fi already developed that can download a feature film to your computer in seconds.

But as the technology races forward, the gap between the benefits of the “haves” and the opportunities denied the “have-nots” widens. This is not just a global matter: Bulgaria and Cyprus already lag so far behind the rest of the EU in broadband access and subsequent economic and social exclusion that the EU risks nurturing a significant gap between members states. (Thankfully, Altitude is involved in a project that would bring Cyprus to the top of the broadband league table, so we’re pulling our weight here!)

Globally, the consequences are far more acute. As long ago as 2000, the World Health Organisation described the current divide as “more dramatic than any other inequality in health or income.” While there may be more people accessing the internet in 2010, the majority of that growth has been in developed countries and the capabilities available via the internet are far more advanced in the developed world than they were at the start of the century.

The technological divide is not just an economic one. It’s no surprise that China struggles to balance its economic ambitions with the way it governs. Technology – or rather the denial of access to it – can have significant consequences in democratic terms.

As this particular type of economic and democratic inequality grows, the countries that are struggling to compete, or even join the game, will be more marginalised, divided and poor as a result. History suggests that as inequality increases, so does the potential for conflict.

The internet is a valuable tool for progress and its potential for helping poorer countries to develop and prosper is enormous. But until the international community acts in order for that to happen, it can have no claim to a Nobel Peace Prize.

Incidentally, other nominees include the human rights campaigners Liu Xiaobo and Svetlana Gannushkina. If you aren’t aware of their incredible efforts to improve the lives of people in China and Russia respectively, it’s easy to find out more – look them up on the internet.